When as an adolescent, the Dalai Lama escaped to India after the Chinese takeover in Tibet, the Panchan Lama, his counterpart, was taken to Beijing (then Peking). Now, after some 60 years, the Dalai Lama, based in Mcleodganj (Uttarakhand), preaches that even praying for a lifetime may not bring wash ~ fulfilment for all.

However, this does not deter another lama from sitting on the Delhi Yamuna bank, twirling a prayerwheel and intoning a mantra from the Buddhist scriptures. His face is a mask, which hides a lot from the world, and he has seen many summers go by the river since he left his native land and made his way to Ladakh Buddhist Vihar, where once Lama Lobzang and Kushak Bakula held sway. You just sit at a distance as the faint breeze blows over the monsoon mass of water that is the Yamuna now.

To disturb his meditations may incur both divine and human wrath, so you just wait and watch other Tibetans busy drinking their brand of tea in the distance or selling charms, amulets and trinkets that could be keepsakes in the years to come. What the lamas did on the banks of the Brahmaputra they do on the Yamuna now, though it’s a far cry from that exalted terrain to the flat plains of the Capital. A middle-aged man walks up and gives you a suspicious look.

Share a smoke and he will talk of nearly everything under the sun. He was a boy when he came to India in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, but he still remembers his old haunts in Tibet, where the monks carried out their rites till daybreak. Sometimes a corpse would stand up on a moonlit night, for funerals were an elaborate ritual there, and those who performed them were steeped in ancient knowledge that broke the barrier between life and death.

Many of the dead were given the sky-burials with body parts being thrown up for the vultures to eat. The charms that were recited and the ceremonies held are things of the past but their memory lingers in the mind of the informant. He used to get scared in those days and not even his mother’s soothing words could make him sleep when the wind howled and the mountains themselves seemed to creak under the fury of the elements. He had heard of lamas performing levitation (like Christopher Lee did in the Hollywood film, Dracula).

One night, when he had stolen out of his little abode, he did see a huge shadow like that of a giant bat and realised only later that it could have been a lama in flight. “The cloak and the headgear imparted monstrosity to the shadow,” he says in a whisper, and you wonder whether his tale is true, but then many explorers from the East and West claim to have seen stranger sights in the once Forbidden Land. Time passes and the stars begin to twinkle in the dull sky.

A girl with a shy smile steals up to the man who has been talking to you. She says something and he follows her, waving his hand in a parting gesture. Probably his daughter, who has grown up in Delhi. Just then the lama stops his wheel and opens his eyes. You feel like asking him about things too deep for words but his gaunt features deter you.

“Next time perhaps,” you mumble as you walk away from that presence on the Yamuna bank ~ a poignant shadow in life’s pantomime show. Now another eerie setting: The Bhairav temple behind the Purana Qila is a strange place, where liquor is secretly offered to the deity. Two beggars, Tota Ram and Kalia, are among those who frequent the place on Sundays, when the special offering is made. To get intoxicated and enjoy the divine “leela” is how they take the gift of the occasion. The Bhairavs are the messengers of Yama, and to appease them is considered a worthy service to escape suffering at their hands in after life. There are people who look down on this sort of devotion as they consider the concept of Bhairav to be associated with a perverted kind of tantricism, one aspect of which is personified by Aghoris. The Aghoris revel in an unclean environment and their diet is usually obnoxious, including all that is considered unclean in society.

Dirty, unwashed and unkempt, Daropa, the Aghori would lie in a cave near the river bank, lost in a world of his own unless gamblers, who indulged in “satta”, broke his reverie, asking for the winning number, which would coincide with the last digits of the New York opening and closing cotton quotations. That he was somehow able to help them was evident from the fact that they came trooping in every day with expensive gifts, which the man just chose to ignore or tossed into the river. To come back to the lama on the Yamuna bank, who brings a little bit of Tibet to Delhi with all its primeval mysteries, one wonders at his quaint way of life.

Like the lama in Kipling’s novel Kim, he is engaged in earning merit for himself by good deeds and austere penance. So long as he’s around, he will help to merge the Yamuna and Brahmaputra in a mystical union of two divergent streams of thought by twirling his all-encompassing prayer-wheel, notwithstanding the Dalai Lama’s comment on the futility of long-winded prayers.

When one visited the river bank during the Vijaydashami immersion of Durga idols, one couldn’t find the lama, but another one sat in his place, not with a prayer-wheel but a forlorn look in his eyes. He had seen the Brahmaputra once as a boy and remembered that the river was so long and wide that it almost looked like a sea in motion. Most of his life was spent on the bank of the Yamuna and he had begun to regard it as a mystical twin of the Brahmaputra.

The idol immersion in it every year hurt his sensibility as he thought polluting a river flowing from the snowy Himalaya was a sin both against divinity and humanity. “It takes months for the debris to be cleared and then comes another Dussehra and another immersion with more and more idols being thrown into the water and making it dirtier than even before,” he said with great remorse. The lama remembered that his grandfather was born on the banks of the Brahmaputra and escaped to India with the small group that had accompanied the Dalai Lama.

Being the oldest of the lot he had taken part in the sky-burials, helping other lamas to reduce dead bodies to heaps of bone and meat, which were thrown up to the kites and vultures that were always hovering over the place. He drew a distinction between the Parsi “Towers of Silence” and the Buddhist practice in Tibet, saying in the former whole bodies are eaten by vultures while in the latter case it is only body parts that are fed to them.

Hearing him, one could picture the gruesome scene at both places ~ and the lama, seemingly reading one’s thoughts, added that things had changed, with sky burials being banned by the Chinese and the “Towers of Silence” almost bereft of the fast-diminishing vultures that are threatened into extinction.